Chapter 1

Hanged Man Holler

I turn my Jeep into the narrow opening hidden in the trees and bushes lining the highway; one can pass this spot without noticing the road, even in winter when the trees are bare. Nothing marks the spot except the memories of those who’ve been here. Until it was paved a few years ago, the road had been a dirt track, often washed out by the rain, stranding us up the holler for days before the road crew came.

I approach the cliff that gave the holler its name after the first settlers came. In the vapor left by the rain I see the ghost of the Hanged Man tree, the mighty oak that once stood atop the cliff–at night a dark shadow against the sky, a hanged man swaying from its thickest branch. For years the road was rarely traveled after dark, even after two bold young boys visited the tree one night and said the strange form was made by swaying branches and tangled vines.

Then one day during a thunderstorm, lightning struck the tree, splitting it down the middle, setting the hanged man free. Since then he’s roamed the holler, where he’s seen from time to time, the broken rope still hanging from his neck.

Several families have claimed him as kin. One says he was an ancestor who was wrongfully hanged for horse thievery by the family they still fued with. It keeps their feud going. As Papaw Mullins told me when I was a cild, “some folks jest like to fight.”

The remains of the old log train tracks still follow along the left side of the road, rusty rails sinking into ties left to rot into the earth when the new railroad was built high around the mountainside. Between the tracks and the bottomland on the other side, the muddy waters of Hanged Man Creek carry its burden of mine debris from the holler. The creek overflows its banks as if trying to reach the tracks and climb to the road to escape the carnage.

I reach the old swinging bridge that crosses to our place. On the other side of the bridge a path leads through the bottom to the house Papaw built on stilts to keep it safe from the rising creek. The house seems smaller than I remember, as if it’s drawn back within itself to grieve. Through the front porch window the dim yellow light of an oil lamp flickers. The electricity must be out due to the storm.

Pulling onto the side of the road in front of the Taylor place, I park behind a rusted blue pickup and take a small flashlight from my glove compartment. Since the rain has slowed to a few spatters, I leave my umbrella behind, grabbing the handle of my satchel from the back seat and slinging it onto my shoulder.

As I hurry towards the bridge, the beam of my flashlight pierces through the dark. Vapors rise in the meadow, ghosts from the past. Childish voices carry on the wind from the playground of my ancestors and I hear their carefree chants changing to cries of despair. See my brothers and sister and I, dancing among them, and then stopping, growing still.

Papaw sits on the old rocker on the porch, staring at the mountain that rises in the distance behind the Taylor place, its top a flat line across the sky. He shakes his fist at the mountain. “Reclamation!” he shouts, and waits, as if the mountain should defend itself. One day Joe Ray and I found him there, his mouth wide open to speak. But both Papaw and the mountain had been silenced. “What’s wrong with Papaw, Callie?” Joe Ray said. “He’s done quit talking to the mountain,” I said. “Go get Mama, Joe Ray. Tell her to come quick.”

The bridge swings wildly to one side. I grab hold of a cable, holding on until the bridge rights itself before starting off again a little slower, my heart pounding hard as I reach the other side, run down the ramp and up the path to the house.

A prank, that’s what it is, one of Joe Ray’s pranks. Pretending to be dead so sister Callie will come home. He’ll jump out at me, a big grin on his face. “Surprise!” he’ll say and I’ll almost faint. I’ll grab my heart and say, “Joe Ray, how could you do such a thing! Shame on you, Joe Ray!” And his eyes will sparkle and he’ll laugh and pick me up and swing me around.

If only it’s true. Let it be true. I stop on the porch to draw a shaky breath; try to still my trembling body. Open the door and walk in.

The first thing I see is the coffin. Papa’s coffin against the wall. Dark gray. The flickering light from the oil lamp on a corner table throws a yellowish glow across the coffin to Papa’s face. It appears to be made of wax. The memory hits me, of Joe Ray standing beside me in the doorway. Joe Ray saying “Callie, Papa opened his eyes and looked at me.” Me, afraid I’d see what Joe Ray saw. Watching the thing that looked like Papa but wasn’t Papa. Fearing it’d open its eyes, that I’d see death staring out of Papa’s face. Joe Ray told me once he didn’t remember Papa, and what’s so strange is, in all my memories of Papa Joe Ray was there. How could he not remember?

A heavy sweet smell floats from flowers mounted on stands at each end of the coffin, mingles with the smell of wet dead things and decaying things and unwashed bodies. Arms are around me; someone is crying. Lou Ann. I realize the body is Joe Ray. Looking so much like Papa. I close my eyes; hear a clunk as my satchel falls onto the wet rug. Why did you bring him home, Lou Ann? Folks don’t do that anymore. They keep them at the funeral home now.

I pull away. See our nearest neighbors and two of Mama’s friends from the Mount Calvary Baptist Church. Sitting around the room, some in shadows, some in the eerie light of the oil lamps, in their stocking feet, a pile of wet galoshes and umbrellas lying on a rug by the door. They sit on folding chairs from the funeral home, looking at me, some with tears running down their faces. Crying for Joe Ray, who never cried. Joe Ray who was always laughing. Strumming his guitar on the front porch on summer evenings. Drawing people from up and down the holler to come sit and sing along with him. Cracking jokes. Even making Mama laugh.


“In bed. Doc Hammonds gave her something.”

Relief. I don’t have to face her yet. Callie Jane Franklin, you were ‘sposed to look after your little brother. I’m sorry, Mama, he let go my hand and fell in the water. Joe Ray’s little face and sparkling eyes, laughing, jerking his hand out of mine and jumping to another of the slippery rocks we used for stepping stones across the shallow end of the creek. Falling, landing with a splash while I wade into the cold water to pull him out. Get a switch now, Callie, go pick your switch for your whupping. I’m sorry, Mama. You still get your whupping, Callie. Now go get your switch.

Searching through the trees for a switch that won’t hurt. Skinny branches, fat branches, too big, too small, too thick, too thin; no such thing as a switch that won’t hurt. Red welts on my legs. That stung for days. What’s wrong with Callie’s legs, Papa says. I whupped her, Mama says; she let Joe Ray fall in the creek, he coulda drowned.

Papa’s eyebrows getting lower over his eyes as he looks at me. You hafta look after your little brother, Callie. Later, hearing him tell Mama in the kitchen, you whupped her too hard, Bertie, she’s just a youngun. The clanging of a pot slamming onto the stove.

Martha Craft hefts herself out of a chair near me, grabs hold of my shoulder, her fingers pinching into my flesh. “Ain’t for us to know why, Callie, ain’t for us to know! The Lord wanted Joe Ray and done brung him home!” A chorus of amens break out around the room, shadows dance on the ceiling in the flickering light, someone shouts hallelujah, praise the Lord, and Martha’s eyes catch fire and right there in front of Joe Ray’s body they get a Sunday meeting going, striking fear in me that Holy Rollers in the room will throw themselves to the floor, start rolling and speaking in tongues.

A loud moan turning into a wail drawing closer, Mama stumbling into the room in her flannel nightgown, long gray hair loose from its knot hanging on her shoulder, a wild look on her face, crying my boy, my boy, throwing herself across the coffin; my hand touching Joe Ray’s cold waxy face, pulling her off his body, holding her, Mama don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry. I’m sorry Mama I’m sorry it’s all my fault I let Joe Ray fall into the creek and this time I didn’t save him and he drowned.

Mama’s anguished cries against my shoulder, the oil lamps casting shadows into the corners of the room; Joe Ray look what we’ve done to Mama Joe Ray I couldn’t save you this time why didn’t you save yourself look what we’ve done to Mama Joe Ray look what we’ve done.

Weeping mothers in the room mourning dead sons, dead of mine explosions, gunshot wounds, drunk driving, drowning, sickness, war, beloved sons lying in the coffin with Joe Ray. “Oh, God don’t take my boy from me!” Mama cries. Lifting her in my arms, I carry her through the door into the bedroom, while she cries “my boy my boy, dear God, please don’t take my boy.”

Lou Ann follows behind me, bringing one of the oil lamps, saying, “It’s about time for her pill.” I sit Mama down on the edge of the bed, holding her trembling body upright as Lou Ann sets the oil lamp on the dresser, the wick flaring up, releasing smoke, streaking soot across the inside of the glass chimney. By the light Lou Ann pours water into a glass from a plastic pitcher and forces a pill into Mama’s mouth, making her swallow. We help her to lie down with her head on the pillow and I pull the quilt up around her shoulders. She closes her eyes, her moans growing fainter.

On the wall behind Mama’s bed I see the framed picture of Joe Ray, Lou Ann, Luther and me when we were younguns, taken in the back yard next to the vegetable garden, the four of us wearing shorts and t-shirts, grinning at the camera. The mountain rises up behind us, thick with trees. My eyes fall on a spot halfway up the mountain slope. A glint of sunlight marks the place where the clearing had been, until the day men came to the mountain, blasting out a path for the new railroad. My secret hideaway becoming just another place in my memory. Where I’d found the fossil of a fish in a rock, realized the mountains had once lain beneath the sea. Afterwards, I had lain in the grass, surrounded by the blue Sweet Williams and watched the white clouds floating above me in a sea of blue.

From the trees I’d heard a low humming, heard it growing closer, felt it entering and vibrating throughout my body like a thousand honeybees. Closing my eyes, I’d seen the mountaintops rising from the waters, their peaks shining gold in the sun. I’d felt the earth shake, saw the ridges and valleys form along the mountain slopes, saw the hollers, saw Hanged Man. I knew then I’d been there watching when the mountains rose from the ocean floor, that I’d seen them rise, knowing one day I would live in Hanged Man Holler.

Lou Ann motions me further from the bed and whispers, “I ain’t told you yet about Luther.” She’s also looking at the picture, her lips drawn in a thin line across her face. She turns to me. “He’s in jail is where he’s at. I didn’t want to tell you when I called about Joe Ray, but Luther’s done gone bad, Callie.”

“What’s he done?”

”He killed Junior Ratliff in a shoot-out at the VFW in Hazard on Tuesday, the day before Joe Ray was drowned. Over a woman, Lilly Atkins, lives up on Mud Creek. A tramp is what she is, making eyes at Junior and Luther both, setting them against each other. There’s an evil star hanging over this family, Callie.”

“Can’t blame the stars, Lou Ann. Luther’s been heading for the pen since he was a youngun and you know it.”

“But it happening now, just before Joe Ray– “ Lou Ann begins to cry.

“Lou Ann,” I say, “did you ever feel you were supposed to look after Luther, keep him out of trouble?”

She snorts. “That’s crazy. ‘Course not. Ain’t my fault what Luther does. Why’d you say something like that?”

I lift one shoulder. “I always felt that way about Joe Ray–‘cause he was younger than me, I reckon–you know.”

“No, I don’t know. If you mean I was ‘sposed to keep Luther out of trouble ‘cause he was younger, you’re out of your mind. Luther always done what he wanted, ain’t nobody to blame but him.”

“I know. I didn’t mean that, I just meant – “

”Weren’t nothing you could do about Joe Ray, Callie. He’s the one what got himself drunk, jumped in that swimming hole and drowned, weren’t nobody else made him do it.”

“You said he was with those Gibson boys he ran around with. Didn’t they try to save him?”

“They was as drunk as Joe Ray. By the time they got him out it was too late.”

Just then the lights come on. “Hallelujah,” someone shouts. Lou Ann and I look quickly at Mama, the light from the front room casting the shadow of the doorway across her face. Her eyes stay closed; her hands flutter on the quilt, and then are still again. I hope she sleeps and sees the same great speckled bird she saw come to carry Papaw away; it gave her such peace, she said, when she awoke. Yet my doubts betray my wish; losing a child, I think, is not the same.

Lou Ann and I return to the front room. In the kitchen the women come and go, putting away the food that spreads across the table; casseroles, pork and chicken, cakes and pies, brought by friends and neighbors. Polly Craft washes dishes at the sink while Hazel Collins stretches plastic wrap over the tops of bowls, putting them in the fridge. Picking up a plate of fried chicken, Hazel sees me through the open doorway. “You eat yet, Callie? There’s a lot of food here. How about I fix you a plate.”

I shake my head. “Thanks, Hazel, but I’m not hungry.”

“Don’t go starving yourself now. You hafta be strong for your Mama.”

“I will be. I’ll be strong for Mama,” I say, telling her what she expects to hear, but in the rain that beats against the house I hear the bleating of my mama’s heart, or is the crying coming from the mountain?

Since Lou Ann sleeps in Mama’s room to keep an eye on her, I have the creaky bed we shared growing up to myself. I lie under an old quilt worn soft from many washings, pieced from scraps left over from dresses Mama made for Lou Ann and me. I remember watching her make the quilt, my eyes fixed on the shiny scissors snipping the then-bright cotton scraps into squares. As she sewed the squares together Mama told me about the dresses Mamaw made for her when she was a little girl, on this same old treadle sewing machine, passed down to Mamaw by her own mama, and her mama before her.

In those days, Mama said, the general stores sold flour in pretty print cotton sacks, and Mamaw saved them until she had enough to make a dress. Mama’s favorite was a white one covered with tiny blue flowers, and oh, she said, how she had loved that dress! It nearly broke her heart when the dress wore out and Mamaw had used it for a rag.

I imagined Mama in that little dress, her dark hair in the French braids Mamaw plaited them in every morning, pulled so tight they made her eyes slant; saw her walking proudly to the blackboard at the front of the schoolroom to do her addition and subtraction; saw the dress wear out, become a rag to use to scrub the floors.

The one-room schoolhouse, deserted now, still sits on the hillside high above the creek; its rotting wood waits to enclose us should the creek flood the bottom between the house and the bridge, forcing us to escape to higher ground.

One day, Mama said, Mr. Holcomb received a bundle of books from someone in Lexington and lined them on a shelf (they had a man teacher after the woman teacher couldn’t make the rowdy eighth grade boys mind). In a book Mama read was a picture of a little girl who took ballet lessons; she was wearing a beautiful white dress called a tutu, with pink tights and satin slippers, and stood on her tippy-toes. Mama had wished she could grow up like that; take ballet lessons, wear beautiful tutus and pink tights, and dance on her toes in satin slippers.

She laughed a little when she told me this, as if it were a silly wish she’d had, but I’d ached for her because I knew it’d mattered, and that she also had a place she put things she didn’t want to feel.

As I listen to the rain, a soft patter against the window, I think of Joe Ray’s cold body lying in the front room beneath the dim light we left on for the night; and Luther in his dreary jail cell, heading for prison. Shivering, I pull the covers up, closing my eyes against the pain.

2 Responses

  1. So touching; so truly written; I feel as if I were in the room.

  2. Thank you!

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